Updated: Jan 13
When the NCAA announced that they were considering a move from the 10k to the 8k for the national and regional championship meets, the first team I thought about was Ole Miss – not because they’ve done poorly in the 10k, but because of how well they have competed at Nationals despite the distance being a 10k.
No other program that is predominantly middle-distance oriented has been able to find the same level of cross country success that Ole Miss has. In theory, Nationals being two kilometers shorter would give the Rebels’ milers a chance to use their track-oriented speed earlier in races (when it comes to finishing kicks) which makes them arguably even more dangerous.
Of course, even if no change goes into effect next year, Ole Miss has a bright future that starts with this year’s young, but experienced team. Only one senior graduated from their top seven, and they will be losing only one senior after this year (Farah Abdulkarim). After an impressive season last year, 2019 could be another big step in the right direction as Ole Miss looks to become a podium threat in the future.
* * *
2018 started out well for the Rebels as they began their season at the Battle in Beantown against nationally ranked Syracuse and Washington. Led by new transfer Abdulkarim who finished 4th behind the Campbell duo and Aidan Tooker, Ole Miss finished 3rd, ahead of Virginia and Campbell. Behind the new Rebel were Waleed Suliman and Michael Coccia who finished 10th and 21st, respectively. It wasn't a perfect race, but it was a nice season debut that gave the Rebels something to build on for the rest of the season.
After a strong performance in Beantown, the team from Mississippi competed in the Cardinal section of Pre-Nationals. It was in Wisconsin that Ole Miss began showcasing their depth. Suliman finished 25th while Coccia and Abdulkarim finished right behind him in 32nd and 35th place. Mario Garcia Romo and Cade Bethmann filled out the rest of the lineup crossing the line 48th and 84th. In a race that was loaded with top-tier programs such as NAU, Stanford, Colorado, Oregon, and a few others, Mississippi's 7th place finish seemed respectable. Could it have been better? Absolutely, but all things considered, it was another solid result.
It was in the postseason, however, that the young Rebel team really started to kick it into high gear as they won their first-ever SEC title over a historically dominant Arkansas team (which is surprising considering they were a podium team a few years ago). Suliman once again led the team with an inspiring 4th place finish, but the MVP of the race was Bethmann, who broke out in a big way to finish 6th. Abdulkarim and Garcia Romo followed right behind in 7th and 8th, giving Ole Miss just enough room to beat Arkansas with a formidable pack.
Following their historic win at SEC's, the Rebels took care of business at the South Regional Championships, cruising to a 1st place finish and easily securing a spot to Nationals. Abdulkarim, Suliman, Garcia Romo, Bethmann, and Ben Savino earned All-Region spots, another sign that Ole Miss was slowly developing depth.
Mississippi's performance at Nationals was impressive given their youth, but it also showed that there was significant room for growth. While Suliman had a fantastic race (finishing 36th overall and earning All-American honors), the rest of the team slightly underwhelmed: Bethmann had a solid race finishing 93rd, but Garcia Romo, Abdulkarim, and Savino had off days. Overall, the squad finished 17th in the country, an excellent finish considering the youth of the team, but one that the Rebels will certainly expect to improve upon as they enter the 2019 cross country season.
* * *
The Rebels continued their momentum going into the ensuing track seasons. Suliman and Bethmann ran PR's in the 1500, running 3:38 and 3:41, respectively. Additionally, freshman Dalton Hengst ran 3:43, qualifying for Nationals in the 1500. Fellow freshman Garcia Romo also ran well, running 3:44 and a 14:28 during outdoors, proving that he could be utilized in both the middle and long distance.
Looking towards this fall, Ole Miss is well-positioned to continue their streak of encouraging results. Everyone from last year's squad returns in 2019 – minus Mark Robertson – and the team should be even deeper than it was last year. Michael Coccia’s season ended early after Pre-Nationals, but he was a consistent scorer for the team before his injury.
Furthermore, Parker Scott returns after not running at all last year. The last time we saw him run he turned in an 8:47 time in the steeplechase to qualify for Nationals. In the fall of 2017, he was a top seven runner for the team and an All-Region performer. Bringing him back this year will give Ole Miss yet another option for their starting lineup. If he's healthy, the potential impact he could have on the team score
New members of the team, Cole Bullock and Jack Filan, will also give Coach Vanhoy more options. Bullock has run 4:10 and 8:50 while also finishing 21st at Footlocker. Filan owns solid PR's of 9:14 and 15:08 on the track. If Vanhoy opts not to utilize a redshirt season, Bullock could be an immediate impact scorer for the Rebels this fall. His upside potential is extremely exciting.
* * *
For Ole Miss to take the step in 2019, they will need stronger performances from the middle of their lineup. Suliman provides the team with a proven low-stick while Abdulkarim is a nice complement at the #2 spot. However, the rest of the team will need to minimize gaps in the 3-4-5 positions, specifically at larger meets. Between Bethmann, Coccia, Garcia Romo, Scott, and maybe even Hengst or Savino, I’m betting that Ole Miss will be able to stack their entire top five in the top 100. If they do that, then a top 15 ranking will be no problem.
Of course, don't think that Suliman or Abdulkarim can get away without making improvements either. Programs ranked behind them like UCLA, Alabama, and maybe even Southern Utah have equally talented low-sticks who could have a significant scoring impact in larger invitationals. In order to get an edge on their competition, Ole Miss will need to match that firepower and then separate themselves from the rest of the field with their depth.
The Rebels’ season will get really interesting if someone makes a big leap and becomes a fringe All-American. With two runners in the top 50, finishing in the top third at Nationals is a real possibility.
Yet, even without any huge improvements, this young but seasoned team will be a handful not only in 2019, but also for years to come.